Tuesday, July 3, 2007

A Distant Mirror

A Distant Mirror, by Barbara W. Tuchman
$12.21 at Amazon.com
ISBN: 0345349571
The history of the calamitous 14th Century. This book is a bit more challenging than most of the stuff I post about on here, but it's worth the effort if you're interested in learning about life in the Middle Ages. It's a bit long and scholarly at parts, but there's plenty of violence and intrigue to keep the story moving.
The story revolves around a mid-level noble in medieval France: Enguerrand de Coucy. Using his life as a vehicle, the reader gets to experience all the fun of living through the Hundred Years' War, the Inquisition, and of course the 14th Century's most outstanding characteristic: the Black Death. Doesn't that sound exciting?
In October of 1347, a ship arrived in the Sicilian port city of Messina with dead and dying men at the oars. The affected sailors had strange black swellings called buboes, about the size of an egg in the armpit or groin. Violent fevers, agonizing pain and delirium soon followed. Everything that came from the body stank horribly: sweat, blood from the buboes, bloody urine and blood-blackened excrement. Depression and despair accompanied the earliest physical symptoms so that "death is seen seated on the face."
The disease was Bubonic Plague, and a third of the world died.
I have to admit this period represented a real gap in my knowledge until I read Tuchman's book. She has an amazing talent for giving the reader a sweeping panorama view of life in the hardest patch of human history. It's not just about plague, however. Castles began to dominate the French countryside, and we get a terrific tour of what life was like in a medieval castle during war and peace. Sieges brought over-crowding, disease, and eventually starvation and cannibalism to rich and poor alike.
It sounds depressing, but it's guaranteed to make you feel better about your own life in the 21st Century. It's not all gloom and doom, though: there's a lot of material on more up-beat subjects. What was the theater and literary scene in medieval times? What kind of sex lives did people have? What about the night life?
There's a lot of sadness and suffering in this book. This would eventually lead to the Protestant Reformation and the Renaissance. But it's always darkest before the dawn.
Tuchman wrote outstanding books on a variety of historical subjects. This one comes highly recommended because it's a great crash-course on medieval life, covering all the high points without getting bogged down with obscure names and dates. Heavy but not boring, dark but never needlessly so. This is a masterpiece of medieval scholarship enjoyable enough for the less experienced reader to follow.
One of my all-time favorites!


Emile J. Walters said...

I so much agree with you on the qualities of this book. A good thing to promote it!

Hansisgreat said...

I'm glad you enjoyed it as much as I did! I'm reading her book "Guns of August" now, on the first month of World War I. Also really good.